I’m not sure who dove onto the asphalt first, but in the end it was Max holding out my wedding band, a deep dent in the strip of platinum running through the center. I was annoyed, sure, but after the day I’d had, it seemed a perfect reminder for the rest of my life: Remember that time you almost ruined your wife’s wedding dress? Better to feel that dent, I suppose, than her wrath for the next sixty years.
“Doesn’t look too bad,” Max was saying. He placed it on his finger, straightened his hand out in front of him. “Can hardly see it, really.”
“Know what would make it completely go away?” Will said.
His answer was simple: “Alcohol.”I didn’t get completely shitfaced. It was my wedding day, after all. But after a couple of drinks with the boys, I felt better than I had all week. And I was ready to get this f**king show on the road.
It was strange to get ready alone. Showering, shaving, dressing in the empty suite. For any other big event, Chloe would be by my side, happily chatting about whatever was on her mind. But for the biggest event of our lives—our wedding—I was preparing solo. I’d put on a tuxedo dozens of times in my life, eventually getting so comfortable wearing them that I barely glanced at my reflection before leaving the house. But here, as I stared back at myself, I was aware that Chloe would look down the aisle at me, walk toward me, agree to marry me. I wanted to be exactly what she’d always pictured her husband would be. I tried to straighten my hair with my fingers, made sure I hadn’t missed a spot shaving. I checked my mouth for any stray toothpaste, tugged at my shirt cuffs.
For the first time all week, I was the one texting my mother.
Any doubts I’d had about Kristin were gone the moment I stepped outside and saw the ceremony setup. Rows of white chairs draped in sheer white and Tiffany blue ribbon stretched in front of me; white flower petals covered the aisle. A sea of tables draped in crystal and silver and more Tiffany blue covered the lawn area. Chloe’s favorite flowers—orchids—were everywhere: in vases, clinging to the branches of huge potted trees, hanging in fragrant clusters from the tent ceilings. The sun was just starting to set, the guests were all seated, and I stole a moment to steady myself, gripping Henry’s shoulder as I took it all in.
Kristin motioned that it was time to begin and I nodded, vaguely aware of the soothing music and the unbelievable sunset and the huge f**king moment in front of me. I reached for my mom’s arm and began escorting her down the aisle.
“Did you ask the caterer if they got fresh—”
“Not now, Mom,” I hissed through clenched teeth, smiling at the guests.
“You okay, sweetheart?” she asked when we reached her seat and I kissed her cheek.
“Almost.” I kissed her one more time, and took my place at the end of the aisle, my heart clawing its way up my throat.
The music began and Sara and Henry were the first down the aisle. Even from where I stood, I could see she looked absolutely stunning. Her smile was huge, and she seemed to be almost laughing as she moved toward me. The first thing I noticed was the soft sound of suction as the heel of her shoe sank into the wet ground with each step. I exhaled a steadying breath, knowing it could have been much, much worse. And Sara was laughing. Surely, this was a good sign?
The second thing I noticed was the low hum of giggles that began near the back rows of seating, and grew louder as Sara and my brother moved toward me. I looked to Henry, who seemed to be barely holding it together, and then back to Sara, narrowing my eyes and I took in the full length of her body.
A wide set of greasy tire tracks cut across her dress where it covered her very round and very pregnant stomach.
I was gripped by a white-hot rush of panic as I remembered the dresses, the way they’d looked scattered like roadkill as traffic whizzed by all around them. Sara looked like she and her baby had been run over by a truck. I felt all of the blood drain from my face.
“Oh, no,” I groaned. All I’d cared about was the state of Chloe’s dress. We hadn’t even thought to look at the others.
As if Sara read my mind, she shook her head and motioned behind her, mouthing the words she’s perfect, in reassurance.
I closed my eyes for a beat, urging myself to relax. Chloe is fine. She’s not going to come down the aisle with a cleaver. Just f**king calm down, Ben.
The music changed and I heard the sound of three hundred and fifty bodies stand up, a collective sigh that ran through the guests. I opened my eyes just as everyone turned to see the bride at the end of the aisle.
Everything seemed to settle at once and for the first time in my life, absolutely nothing else mattered. Not deadlines or work, just this. My brain—which thrived on spreadsheets and order and managing every detail of my life and the lives of those around me—had gone quiet. Not in an unpleasant way, but in a way that finally said, take a seat and pay attention because this moment is bigger than you and every decision you’ve ever made.
Chloe’s chin was tucked low, her arm looped through her dad’s and she clutched a bouquet of orchids in her free hand. Her hair was piled on top of her head and where I’d normally be plotting how I’d get it down and get my fingers in it while I threw her down onto any available flat surface, all I could think about was how I wanted to leave it up. I could see every inch of her face, and she looked so beautiful. I wanted to freeze this moment, stretch it out, and make it last forever.
It was clear that Chloe, even down to the last moment, was working something out. Her eyes were closed, her face arranged in a look of concentration as she sifted through her thoughts. Just as clear was the moment she figured it all out. Lifting her head, her eyes moved up the aisle to me, and it was as if time stopped and everything else fell away. I could feel myself smile, then see it reflected in the way her entire face seemed to light up, and I did the only thing I could think.
It’s only three hundred and fifty people looking at me.
It’s only a river of mud on the aisle.
It’s only a tire print across my maid of honor’s pregnant belly.
It’s only one ceremony, it’s only getting through one day. It’s only the love of your life at the end of that aisle.
My father tucked my arm into the crook of his, and wrapped his fingers over mine. “Ready, sweetheart?”
“You have second thoughts over marrying this Benson character?”
I looked up at him and laughed at the teasing in his eyes. “No, I don’t have any second thoughts over Benson. It’s just . . . the way the last two days have gone, I’m worried there will be an earthquake when I walk down the aisle, or a tsunami, or—”
“Well, maybe there will be an earthquake, or maybe there will be a tsunami. But you can’t control the elements any more than you can control who you love. So are we going to do this wedding business or go get a drink in a bunker?”
I squeezed his hand and took a step forward, moving from the solid concrete of the patio to the soft, sodden mess of the lawn. My foot sank into the grass, and I pulled it up with a loud squelching sound. Beside me, my father nearly lost his balance in the mud.
“Pretend you’re a feather,” Dad whispered, and we both broke into laughter. “Lighter than air.”
But then we turned the slight corner and I saw it.
The man who was going to be my husband in only a matter of minutes.
His eyes met mine and the biggest smile I’d ever seen stretched across his face. For several long seconds, I couldn’t walk. I could barely breathe. The only thing I could do was stare at Bennett standing at the end of the aisle, waiting for me. He wore a perfectly tailored tux, and a perfectly devastating smile. He looked just like I felt: elated, overwhelmed, on the verge of falling over.
I saw his mouth say the words Come here.
And suddenly I couldn’t get to him fast enough. I pulled my father forward, ignoring his quiet chuckle at my haste, ignoring the wet suction of the mud as it slipped into my shoe, ignoring the fact that I was moving faster than we’d rehearsed and the song wouldn’t get to the right point by the time I reached the altar. I didn’t care. I wanted to get to Bennett, put my hands in his, rush through the vows, and get to the “I do” as soon as humanly possible.
I bent, pulling my muddy sandals from my feet. Tossing them to the side, I ignored the loud splat they made in a puddle and hitched my dress above my ankles. I smiled when the crowd laughed and broke into applause, and I pulled my dad faster down the aisle, practically running. He stopped me up short halfway there, at the border of where the grass met the sand.
“This is the perfect metaphor,” Dad said quietly, kissing my nose. “I got you halfway there, sweetheart; you do the rest.” He kissed my cheek and then released me to run full bore the rest of the way down the petal-strewn sand and hurl myself into Bennett’s waiting arms.
Cameras clicked all around us, and the guests were yelling their approval as Bennett swung me in a small, slow circle, my face in his neck and his mouth open and pressed to my shoulder.
I could imagine how we looked: not even married yet, clutching each other as if our lives depended on it, my feet exposed as Bennett spun me, the bottoms dark with mud and stark against the perfect white of my gown.
Carefully, carefully he put me down and beamed down at me. “Hey.”
I swallowed back a sound that would probably have come out somewhere between a cry and a gasp and said, “Hey yourself.”
We hadn’t seen each other since I’d been kidnapped from the room just as we were about to attack each other, and I could see it in his eyes: he wanted to kiss me. He wanted to kiss me with such hunger that it made us both vibrate, stare at each other’s mouths, lick our lips in unison.
He gave me a tiny nod, and we turned together to face the officiant, the Honorable James Marsters, who appeared completely baffled.
He leaned closer, whispering, “Have we finished the ceremony?” His watery blue eyes swam with confusion, and he peeked down at his notes before looking back at us.
With the sweetness of his expression and the perfect timing of this question, I bit my lip to keep from laughing out loud. Bennett slid his amused eyes to me and then back to the man before us.
“No, Judge. I apologize . . . my wife-to-be and I got a little carried away with our greeting.” He tilted his head and murmured, “Neither the first nor the last time, actually.”
“At least we know what we’re getting into,” I said, and beside me Sara laughed. I handed her my bouquet and turned to face Bennett as he took hold of my hands.
And once I was up there with him, I wanted to savor every second. The judge read through his opening readings about love, and marriage. I absorbed every word, somehow, while still being completely lost in the intensity of Bennett’s expression.
As I recited my vows, I felt him shift closer, relished the warm hum of his skin pressed to mine where our hands met.
When it was his turn, I watched his lips as he repeated every single vow:
I promise to be your lover and friend . . .
Your ally in conflict and your accomplice in mischief . . .
Your greatest fan and your toughest adversary . . .
His eyes twinkled and he tickled the palm of my hand with the pad of his thumb when he said this, and then, very slowly, he looked down at my mouth and licked his lips.
His eyes darkened and his voice lower when he repeated, I promise to be faithful, loyal, and put your needs above all others . . . this is my vow to you, Chloe, my only lover and my equal in all things.
Suddenly my dress felt cinched too tight. The breeze off the water seemed too weak.
The officiant turned to me and asked, “Chloe, do you take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband? To honor and cherish him, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and cherish always?”
The first time I tried to push the words out, they got stuck beneath the weight of emotion in my throat. Finally, I managed, “I do.”
He turned and asked Bennett the same thing, and without hesitation, Bennett’s deep voice easily carried the two life-altering syllables: “I do.”
We each turned, he to Henry, and I to Sara, to retrieve our wedding rings. And as the judge spoke to us about the meaning of the rings, and I slid Bennett’s onto his finger, the only thing I could feel was the brilliance of Bennett’s smile as he stared down at it.
Damn, that ring looked good on his finger. This man was officially mine. If I couldn’t get my face tattooed on his arm, this ring would be a nice consolation prize. I moved my fingertip over his, feeling the smooth metal on his skin, but he pulled back a little, resisting my touch as his eyes went wide, just as my finger made contact with an enormous scratch in the platinum.
I pulled his hand up to look closer. What the fuck? Was there an actual dent in his wedding ring?
When I looked up at his face again, he shook his head slightly. “It’s okay,” he whispered.
“What the hell is this?” I asked under my breath.
I felt the fire in my gaze and he barely contained his laugh as the judge called out, “If there is anyone present who has reason to oppose the marriage of this man to this woman, please speak now or forever hold your peace.”
The guests grew completely quiet, and I stood, staring up at Bennett for a beat until the loud, deafening blast of a ship’s horn ripped through the silence. I clapped my hands over my ears, and the entire wedding party jumped and ducked in surprise. Several people screamed. The sound seemed to linger, reverberating across the sand and up over the lawn before being swallowed by the hulking mass of the hotel.